Sporting Contests to Remember: The Miracle of Istanbul
On a warm summer night in May, 2005, the city of Istanbul was buzzing with life. Throngs of foreign crowds and football lovers had spilled into town for the UEFA Champions League final, to be held in the city’s Ataturk Stadium, unknown to the fact that they will be witness to one of the most entertaining and stunning nights in European football’s illustrious history.
The match was an epitome of faith, a fight between giants and fallen giants and the result certainly proving that it was the heart with which you play that controls your destiny. The way the match turned on its head, and the hearts with which both teams played, it seemed more like a glorious illustration of a battle between MEN, for the one and one thing that mattered most: a place in the history books as winners of the most glorious trophy club football has to offer – The Champions League.
AC Milan and Liverpool – the names are known even to people who don’t know about football. The two behemoths of football had reached the final in Istanbul, however with different backgrounds. AC Milan, 6 time winners at the time, had won the trophy 4 times in the last twenty years, including winning the first same-country final by beating Juventus in 2003. Liverpool, 4 time winners at the time, had last won the trophy in 1984 when the club was at the zenith of its game and stature. They had not even won the English League title for the past 15 years and had finished 5th in the current season, 35 points behind winners Chelsea. Liverpool’s exploits in the UEFA CL had surprised the best football pundits, given their ordinary display in the English Premier League. AC Milan, on the other hand, went into the final after finishing 2nd in the Italian Serie A, having won the Italian title 7 times between 1988 and 2004.
Liverpool came to the final by beating Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea in the knockout rounds; the win against Chelsea was hard fought and dubbed as a lucky victory for Liverpool by many people. AC Milan defeated big teams like Manchester United, neighbours Inter Milan (5-0) and PSV Eindhoven with fair ease en route to the final. Milan were essential favourites to life the trophy, on the back of the strong team which contained experienced and world-class players like Maldini, Nesta, Seedorf, Gattuso, Shevchenko etc. Liverpool’s success mainly depended on Steven Gerrard, their influential midfielder and captain, whose brilliant goal in the dying minutes against Olympiacos in the last match of the group stages had taken Liverpool through to the knockout stages.
The night of the final, Liverpool fielded a 4-4-1-1 formation, with the surprise inclusion of a half fit Harry Kewell. Milan started with a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond in midfield, their strike force consisting of the dangerous duo of Shevchenko and Crespo. Milan’s tactics reaped benefits in the first minute of the match when Paolo Maldini volleyed Andrea Pirlo’s free kick past Liverpool’s goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek. Liverpool were pegged back for most of the half, with Milan controlling the game, via their strong midfield. In addition, the gamble on Kewell did not pay off for Liverpool as he limped off in the 23rd minute to be replaced by Vladimir Smicer. Dudek was kept busy through the entire half, making saves from Shevchenko a few times. Shevchenko and Crespo were each adjudged offside once, having scored a goal. Crespo finally entered the score sheet in the 39th minute, after a quick counter attack by Milan. And before Liverpool could adjust to giving that goal, Kaka released Crespo with a beautiful pass that Crespo finished with the same aplomb in the 44th minute. At half-time, with the score staring 3-0 in favour of Milan, most people thought that the match was, in essence, over. It was only a case of how many more goals Milan would put past Liverpool. But destiny, as they say, was still being unwrapped.
Liverpool made a tactical change at the start of the second half – replacing defender Steve Finnan with Dietmar Hamann to bolster the midfield. Manger Rafael Benitez’s substitution did not look effective at first, with Milan beginning the second half where they left in the first, with Shevchenko’s free kick almost beating Dudek. However, an incredible six minutes followed from 54th to the 60th, leaving everyone watching the match mouth-gaping and bringing a mad frenzy to the Liverpool fans. In the 54th minute, Gerrard scored through a well placed header from John Arne Riise’s cross. Two minutes later, Milan were stunned again. Smicer took a shot from 20 yards out and Milan goalkeeper Dida could only parry the ball to the bottom corner.
At 3-2, Liverpool players found hope of a comeback. They displayed eloquent energy and three minutes later, Liverpool earned a penalty after Gerrard was brought down in the box by Gattuso. Xabi Alonso stepped up to take the penalty, which was initially saved well by Dida but Alonso placed the rebounding ball high into the net. 3-3! The crowd went berserk. Within a span of six minutes, Liverpool had scored thrice and made their way back into the match. It was astonishing for everyone to see the David giving Goliath a fight. For the remaining second half, Milan dominated possession again and almost regained the lead in the 70th minute but for a goal line clearance by the Liverpool defence. It remained 3-3 at the end of normal time.
Extra time beckoned. The first half was devoid of much action as the battle remained in the middle of the pitch with neither side unable to make worthy forays into the opposition’s 18-yard box. Liverpool players looked a lot fatigued after the end of the first half of extra-time, many of them requiring treatment for cramps during the break. The second half of extra time also went in a tussle until two great chances fell for Shevchenko. His goal bound header from Serginho’s cross was saved well by Dudek but the rebound fell sweetly for Shevchenko who took the shot from just 3 yards out. Dudek, however, exhibited great agility and blocked the shot with his hands for a physics law defying save. The exasperated look on Shevchenko’s face after that save told Milan’s story for the night – frustration after being denied time and again by Dudek.
The deadlock remained during extra-time as well which meant only one thing – Penalty Shootout! Milan took the first penalty but Dudek’s spaghetti legs antics distracted Serginho to shoot over the bar. Hamann sent Dida the wrong way to convert Liverpool’s first penalty. Dudek saved from Pirlo as well while Cisse scored to give Liverpool a 2-0 lead. Tomasson stepped up next, knowing he needed to score to keep Milan in. He did while Riise missed for Liverpool. Kaka and Smicer followed and both scored to keep the score at 3-2 in Liverpool’s favour, with 4 penalties per team already taken. Shevchenko turned up for Milan, knowing he needed to score to keep Milan in hunt. His weak shot was thrusted away by Dudek’s left hand, leaving Liverpool as Champion League winners in 2005.
Liverpool, who had seem done and dusted at half time, had made one of the most remarkable comebacks in sporting history, to shock football pundits and audiences alike by winning the Champions League. It was a dream run for them given their drowsy performance in the Barclays Premier League. Steven Gerrard was man of the match for his charismatic performance in leading the team to glory. Milan manager, Carlo Ancelotti, termed the duration of Liverpool’s goals as ‘six minutes of madness’. Istanbul was painted red by a sea of Liverpool supporters who partied all night long in rejoice of the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’, where their team overcame so many odds to find their way towards glory and an unforgettable place in the history of sports.